Published by Createspace on January 24th 2009 (1903)
Genres: Classics, Historical Fiction, Short Story
Jack London's most read short story of a man and a dog and their struggle to survive against nature's indifference.
To Build a Fire is a short story about an excessively prideful man and his dog, who foolishly go out in the Alaskan wilderness against the advice of more experienced men; all because he is trying to get to “the boys” (the book never really explains if they are friends or kin) and a warm fire. It starts off kind of slow but eventually becomes intense as his struggle for survival against nature begins.
I know that I usually start a review with what was good about a book, but because in this case most of the bad parts are at the start, it seems only fitting to begin with what I didn’t like first. One of the things that stood out to me very quickly, is that for a short book, it takes a long time to build up the story, and spends most of its beginning focused on describing the surroundings that this man is walking through. I kind of felt like I was the man from the story, trudging through the snow of these pages trying to get to the comforts of a good story; only unlike the man in the story, I didn’t know if my destination existed. I also found the writing style to be a bit choppy at first, and repetitive. I think the reason for this was because London was trying to convey the idea that the narrator was almost monologuing the thoughts of the man in the story. I know when I myself go hiking in the woods, my mind has a tendency to wander, ruminate, and reflect on the events of my past, present, and future; but in this case, this form of narration didn’t work for me at first. When it was combined together with the long build-up and detailed descriptions, it just left me feeling bored and a little frustrated.
So what I’m about to say is going to seem backwards and maybe even hypocritical, because all of what I said I didn’t like about the book, I am now going to praise. Once the action began in the story, the style of narration and the level of detail actually helped significantly to convey the sense of urgency and build suspense to a level I was not expecting, but thoroughly enjoyed. I felt very disconnected from the character at first, but then towards the end I began to feel like I was him. Getting to understand the setting helped to better understand the character, which made it easier to relate to the character on a deeper level.
So in the end, this is another “classic” example (yay puns!) of why we at Fiction Foresight don’t DNF (Did Not Finish) any of our reviews once they are started. I was very tempted to not finish this book, but luckily for me I did and I was rewarded with one of the best survival suspense scenes that I have read in a while. So if you like survival books, are “outdoorsy” like me, and have the patience to get through the whole book, To Build a Fire would be my choice for a short weekend read.